‘The financial anxiety was overwhelming’: Rocketing law school debts and poor salaries make legal aid work unsustainable for junior lawyers

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New damning research

Rising law school fees and low salaries are preventing young legal aid lawyer hopefuls from entering the profession, new social mobility research suggests.

The findings show high course costs for law school staples including the Legal Practice Course (LPC) and Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC) mean many aspiring legal aid lawyers graduate with high levels of debt. This, coupled with traditionally low legal aid salaries, acts as “a significant barrier” to the profession, according to a new report produced by the Young Legal Aid Lawyers (YLAL) group.

The research, Social Mobility in a Time of Austerity, reveals that almost three quarters (72%) of respondents have left or will leave law schools with debts in excess of £15,000. That’s a 7% increase on the last report’s findings, in 2013. Twenty-seven percent will have over £35,000, an increase of 11.5% since 2013.

YLAL received 200 responses from its 3,500-strong membership. Over three quarters (78%) of the participants are female, indicating “an over-representation of women working in the sector”, according to the report. All of those who participated in the research are less than ten-years post-qualified.

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In terms of remuneration, over half of respondents (53%) said they earn less than £25,000. By way of comparison, Legal Cheek’s Firms Most List shows that a rookie at a top commercial outfit can receive (before tax) a salary in excess of £100,000. One respondent described the comparison as “extremely disheartening”, while another told the YLAL:

“I work as hard or harder as my friends in the commercial sector but for far less money. It is tempting to leave the legal aid profession for the commercial legal sector.”

Elsewhere but still on the subject of remuneration, the report says unpaid work experience continues to “represent a barrier to social mobility”. Three quarters of respondents said they had completed unpaid work experience. One YLAL member said:

“The industry simply has TOO many graduates fighting for too few paid positions — within the LA [legal aid] sector.”

It’s not just entry to the profession which is a concern for YLAL, but retention of lawyers once they get there. The report cites “stress” and “lack of support” as reasons for why many lawyers ditch publicly-funded work. It says: “The combination of feeling underpaid, undervalued, working long hours, and a lack of training and support meant that many felt meeting a basic standard of care to clients represented a significant burden.”

Commenting on their stint at the legal aid coalface, one former criminal barrister told researchers:

“Unfortunately, I no longer work in legal aid. The junior criminal bar became too much; the financial anxiety was overwhelming. Working ten-hour days when you didn’t know if you were going to be paid or not became too much.”

Rounding off its extensive report, the YLAL makes a number of recommendations, including: greater regulation over law school fees, new robust profession-backed guidance on work experience, and greater welfare support for those working within the legal aid sector.

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Not Amused

They often don’t.

British people are still firmly wedded to the idea that all lawyers are rich. They are not, and articles like this are an important part of getting that message across.



‘British people’ may have this impression but surely someone wishing to enter the legal profession will have undergone extensive research and are aware of the economic risks (and indeed, at times, prosperity) of entering such a job market?

And by extension reaching the conclusion that legal aid is one of the least financially rewarding of sectors?


BPTC student

This… I’m tired of all this patronising. We’re adults here. We know what we’re doing, there are enormous amounts of information online.



What an awful comment. Our criminal justice system must be protected and be seen on a par with the NHS (although that’s a dangerous comparison to make nowadays).


BPP Shareholder



BPTC student

“It is tempting to leave the legal aid profession for the commercial legal sector.”

And how exactly do you move from a legal aid set to Essex Court?



Some do, but you needs years of practice. It’s who you know and not what you know sometimes in this profession.



A few years at the criminal bar will open the door to work in the financial crime, regulatory or financial conduct departments of most half decent commercial firms. A few of my friends have adandoned publicly funded work at the bar in favour of in-house work at city firms.



Then just quit and do something that pays better. There is nothing stopping you from doing that.


Criminal Barrister

Do they still pay sperm donors?



I dont think anyone would want to buy the sperm of legal aid lawyers when you can get those of doctors, professors or even commercial lawyers



have you met a commercial barrister? did you think that s/he was more fun than a criminal hack?



“I work as hard or harder as my friends in the commercial sector but for far less money.”

No sh!t Sherlock…


Shoaib Hussain

This is true I am a member of the YLAL and other young lawyers in this area agree that it is rather unfortunate that legal aid work is not adequately paid considering the paramount work that gets undertaken by legal aid layers an area to be considered by the government.


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